Experience Thailand's Songkran Festival, which celebrates the Buddhist New Year with cultural festivities and lots of water throwing!
"We're going to see what's going on", some lads from my tour group shouted over to me as they hurried through the hotel foyer. An hour later they were back, in high spirits and drenched with water, their faces and clothes dotted with what looked like specks of clay. It was April 13th, the start of Thailand's three day Songkran Festival, marking the start of the Buddhist New Year, and coinciding by chance with our arrival in Bangkok at the end of a Thai island-hopping tour.
It wasn't long before I ventured out into the dry season heat with some others from my tour. Our hotel was obviously situated in the thick of things as we hadn't walked far down the road before the water throwing began! Grining Thais approached us with bottles to pour water over our heads, soak us with their enormous water guns, or gently daub our faces with a mixture of chalk and water. As we walked further, we could hear screams of delight as strangers chased and showered each other and open-topped trucks drove slowly past filled with youngsters spraying passers-by with hoses. We soon realised that, as tourists, we made very good targets and there was no point in trying to stay dry or clean, so we took hold of our water bottles and joined in the good-natured fun!
Also known as the Water Festival, Songkran is a happy time for Thais who spend it celebrating, giving thanks, reflecting, making resolutions, and spending time with family and friends. For many, the festival begins with early morning 'merit-making' (doing good in order to receive good, according to Buddhist faith) - visting a 'wat' (monastery temple) to pray and offer food to monks, and releasing caged birds and fish into rivers and streams. Houses and temples are cleaned, and buddha images washed with scented water, in order to bring good luck for the New Year. In the 'Rod Nam Dam Hua' ceremony, young people pay respect to adults, particularly elderly relatives, by pouring scented water over their palms and saying a blessing.
The water throwing festivities that take place at Songkran today originated as a way of paying respect to people, by capturing the water that had been poured over buddhas to cleanse them, and using this blessed water to wish good luck to others. The water symbolises washing away bad things and starting afresh. The use of chalk originated in the chalk used by monks to mark blessings and is still common in the celebrations. The festival is celebrated throughout Thailand as well as in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
Today many people celebrate Songkran with lots of water throwing and music, dancing and parties. Most Thais take time off work to be with their families.
Our hotel stood opposite Sanam Luang Park, the green space in front of the Grand Palace, which, as in other parts of the city, was filled with an explosion of noise, celebrations and activities with folk and pop concerts, demonstrations of traditional cooking, arts and dancing, and Thai massage. The area was dotted with sand stupas (a type of pagoda) decorated with flowers and colourful flags.
That evening after returning to the quiet haven of our hotel to change and have dinner, we set out again and made for nearby Khao San Road, the backpacker epicentre of Bangkok. By this time it was dark, and with a reputation as one of the best places in the city to take part in the Songkran celebrations, Khao San Road was packed with both Thais and tourists. We walked along trying not to get drenched and smeared with clay, but failing! The road was filled with a party atmosphere with music and dancing, providing an exciting end to our day of fun, or 'sanuk', as Thais would say, a word which accurately describes the character of this fascinating country's people.
Where to stay
My tour stayed at the 300-room three star Royal Hotel (2 Rajdamnern Avenue). It was in a great location, the old town of Bangkok, and situated near the Grand Palace, Chao Phraya River, National Museum, National Gallery, and Khao San Road.
Try and book your preferred accommodation well in advance. It is advisable to stay in one place during the entire festival as transport across the country gets heavily booked up with many Thais travelling home to be with their families.
Bear in mind that banks, offices and public buildings are closed for the three day period of Songkran.
Don't wear your best clothes when venturing out in some areas during the festival, and be careful if taking expensive clothes and equipment. Zip lock wallets are good for protecting cameras, phones, watches, wallets etc.
Take clothes out with you to cover arms and legs, as visiting temples, and activities around Buddhist images and monks, require covering up in order to respect religious beliefs.
The Bangkok Post (www.bangkokpost.com), the city's English newspaper, has information about what's on during Songkran.